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Khế Iêm

For poets Đỗ Quyên, Inrasara and Lê Vũ

New Formalism is an American poetry movement begun in the early 1980s and developed through the 1990s, lead by a number of young poets composing in the traditional style. But why New Formalism and not some other movement? Traditional Western poetry, began with Homer (his two works The Iliad and The Odyssey, each written in 16-syllable verses), and then followed with free-verse with the American poet Walt Whitman (towards the end of the 19th century). Free-verses, throughout the 20th century, developed strongly in United States after the Second World War with many advant garde movements, withered at the end of the century, and created reactions and revivals of the meter in poetry.

English is a strong-stress and poly-syllabic language with emphasis on consonant sounds. Poetic form depends upon the number of syllabic sounds in a verse, for example, a common form has 10 sounds, iambic pentameter (unstress, stress repeated 5 times), from verse to verse with end-rhymes. If there are no end-rhymes, then it is called blank verses. Vietnamese poetry in the 5-word, 7-word, 8-word or alternating 6-word and 8-word form breaks up the verses according to the word count. Vietnamese is a mono-syllabic language; therefore, its poetic form, besides having rhymes at the end of a verse, may be organized according to the inflections of level / oblique tones.

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Poetry comes before poetic rules. From antiquity, poetry has been developed alongside musical instruments such as lutes and flutes, and people sang it as a song. Later on, even when music and words were differentiated, the relationship between words and music remained as rhythm and sounds, between the practical and the aesthetics, long-standing traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, becoming poetic rules. That is why poetic rules, simplified as rhyme schemes, as end-rhymes, are innate in the heart of the reader and the poet. Once these principles are codified, in much the same way as musical notations, the skill of the poet is to marry words and ideas such that, when the poem is read, there is a spiritual dimension reverberating through, rising to the level of goodness. Free-verse came into being with the desire to escape from the traditional rhythm and rhymes; the goal of making poetry new replaced the standard of making it good. So, to make rhymed verses new or to reform them is to corrupt poetry, and we can only replace the standard of goodness with a different standard. Like modern art, the traditional notion of beauty is replaced by the drive to create, to make anew.

Poetry in any age goes through the cycle of flowering and de-cline. Rhymed poetry after a long period of time goes into retreat because social conditions change; poetry can no longer express human emotions, and free-verse poetry is given a chance to be born. Modern Western-style free- verse poetry and painting is compatible with the spirit of conquest (towards the end of the 19th century) and confrontation (during the cold war period) and the development of science and technology, resulting in two world wars. The period of confrontation created extremism and anoma-lies in American post-war poetic activities, which are biased toward free-verse, pushing aside meter and rhyme poetry, viewing them as an obsolete form of poetry. Meanwhile, in other countries such as England, free verse and meter / rhyme verse developed side by side.

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The rise of New Formalism movement helped American poetic activities regain their balance. But, after a period of revival in rhymed verses, some American poets thought that it was not necessary to adhere to any terms but that it was sufficient for poetry to be good. So, after all, is “New Formalism” just a revival of past traditions? “New” here means “retro”. The key principles of rules, like enjambments, rhyme-schemes, even prose and common speech already exist from the Romantic period early in the 19th century, with William Wordsworth’s blank verses. Free-verse poetry, the Imagists at the start of the 20th century, with poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, also promotes the use of common language and precise words in poetry. Language usages vary over periods of time. When everyday language is infused into poetry, poetry is given new life, captivating the reader and resurrecting rhymed verses. These successes cannot be overlooked; they are a major contribution. Another reason is that readers in the information age are no longer impressed with the new aspects of poetry, so the poet must return to the standard of good poetry, with real talents, in order to preserve poetry.

What about Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry? In Spring 2000, in the special edition of the Vietnamese Journal of Poetry entitled

“Encounter with a New Millennium”, Vietnamese poets utilized the term “New Formalism” to introduce to Vietnamese poetry the Blank Verse form of English poetry. To accept a new form of poetry is to accept the methods of composition, applying new principles: enjambments, repetition, prose narration, and the use of common language.

1/ In English poetic forms, the enjambment technique is very common as compared to line-break in free-verse poetry. When adapted to Vietnamese poetry, this technique is defined as follows: Thơ Khác • 86

“When the enjambment technique is used, it changes the practice of stopping at the end of a verse, the reader is prompted to search for the missing part (of the sentence), the speed of reading is increased and one must read visually. This brings up the concept of time and space in poetry. What is lost, perhaps, is a part of life, of the past or future, and, as such, the present is nothing but emptiness. Such emptiness is not empty because of the ever-changing, ever moving character of what is known and what is unknown, intertwining with each other. Poetry thus arises out of the am-biguities and complexities of syntax, creating musical rhythm.

What is clear, a poem and the perception of rhythm does not lie in language (words), but in the content of the language. The content of the language is the movement of emotions through grammar and syntax.” 1

2/ Common (everyday) language: An example often cited:

“The poet Timothy Steele, while having lunch at a popular eatery, coincidentally overheard a lover’s quarrel, after which the woman stood up and, before leaving, said loudly: x / x / x / x / x /

You haven’t kissed me since we got engaged.

The saying complies with iambic meter (unstress, stress) and repeated 5 times (penta --), thus forming iambic pentameter. Steele recognized that form is drawn from common language, and New Formalism converts common language into poetic forms.” 2

English formalism poetry has two categories, rhymed and un-rhymed poetry (blank verses). This is true in part because English is a polysyllabic language, rich with rhymes, which makes it easy to create enjambments and transform common language into poetry, whether there are rhymes at the end of the verses or not. In 87 • Other Poetry

contrast, Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, wherein it is difficult to convert common language into poetry because it would not conform to metered (rhyme) schemes. Once the metered (rhyme) schemes are eliminated and replaced with enjambment techniques to create free associations, then Vietnamese poetry becomes no different from English blank verses. Common language flows into poetry, erasing the musical qualities of metered poetry, and helps the poet to discover new rhythms and musical qualities. Folk poetry in the six-eight form utilizes simple language but retains the characteristics of lullabies and songs; plain language or common language is not spoken like lullabies or songs. New Formalism is a type of poetry that is read.

3/ In poetic rules, regardless of the form, alliteration techniques are employed to create musical qualities and rhythm for the poem.

The repetitions of the level / oblique sounds is found in Tang poetry forms, and the equivalent unstress, stress sounds, repeated five times in one poetic verse, is found in English. In these ways, traditional poetry creates repeating syllables. When English free verse wished to escape from these rules and traditional sounds, they replaced the repetitive syllables by repeating words and repeating phrases. Similarly, in order to escape from the sounds of rhymed verses, Vietnamese Blank Verse adopted the same technique used in English free verse, that is, repeating words and phrases in a poem.

4/ Narrative / Story-telling quality is a common characteristic throughout all poetic traditions that tell a story. In Vietnamese Blank Verse poetry, this story-telling quality also means that thoughts and concepts are continuous and not disconnected, as in free-verse poetry.

At this point, Vietnamese Blank Verse poetry has achieved all four critical qualities of English Blank Verse to become a separate poetry form. With respects to American poetry, the label of “New Thơ Khác • 88

Formalism” was advanced by its enemies, intended as a jab. Later on, the two founding poets of this movement, Frederick Feirstein and Frederick Turner, combined it with Narrative Poetry to create a new movement, Expansive Poetry. Regardless, American New Formalism had accomplished its goals of reviving rhymed (metered) poetry, and erased the barriers between poets. Because of the dominance of free-verse poetry throughout the 20th century, there were serious rifts, once thought to be irreconcilable, between the schools represented, on the one side, by Robert Frost, who described free verse as “playing tennis without nets”, and on the other side by Ezra Pound, who championed free-verse, trailblaz-ing “make it new”. Only after the arrival of New Formalism did American poetry finally overcome the fever of the Avant Gard poetic movements which blossomed after the 1950s. Poetry harmonized between free-verse and metered forms.

The technical term (label) of “New Formalism” was very accurate with regard to Vietnamese poetry. Vietnamese poetry also revert-ed, but only took old poetic forms and adapted to new qualities in order to be transformed into a new poetic form. In addition, Vietnamese New Formalism was also an assimilation of the traditional and modern, erasing all distinguishing borders between the English and Vietnamese language, thereby creating an exchange of cultures. (It is worth noting here that there are many similarities between the Vietnamese and English language, such as the unstress, stress and level / oblique tones. The only difference is the strength of the sounds. Old English was mostly monosyllabic up until the adaptation of polysyllabic words from French and Latin.

This adaptation permits us to readily accept English Blank Verse, which utilizes alliteration (repetition) in ways that other polysyllabic languages such as French, cannot accept, because they are not strongly stress.)

Poets used descriptive styles and alliteration techniques to create rhythm in free verse poetry, combined with the critical quali-89 • Other Poetry

ties of enjambment and narration from English poetic rules, and then channeling into traditional Vietnamese to be the forms 5, 7, 8 words and six-eight blank verse poetry. Quite exceptional, Vietnamese New Formalism poetry sets new standards while as-piring to even greater heights, able to harmonize all the various poetic forms with free-verse poetry. But then again, why not just keep on composing free verse poetry, why force conformity with forms? We already know that there are many ways to differentiate between poetry and prose, but, as for form, poetic rules are the defining characteristic. When prose is composed, we write to the end of the line before we start a new line; and so, if the poem has no form at all, then it becomes a prosaic composition. Although it harmonizes with free verse poetry, Vietnamese Blank Verse is more akin to prose poetry than it is to other types of modern free-verse poetry.

Besides accepting Blank Verse poetic forms, via an American Avant Gard movement, there is another reason. Perhaps ingrained in the psyche of the refugee/immigrant, there is the motive to understand who we are and who the different peoples around us are, thus giving rise to the need for the discovery of new poetic forms.

Thereby, a need to employ new means in which to gain mutual understanding between Vietnamese and other cultures is realized.

And thus, the issue of translation becomes central.

“The purpose of New Formalism poetry is to propel Vietnamese poetry onto the international stage. That is why translation is emphasized to seek readers from different languages and cultures. If the old markings are too submerged in cultural or linguistic systems, then the foreign reader would not understand, including the young Vietnamese readers presently in Vietnam. But everyone knows that poetry cannot be truly or fully translated because the sounds of a language cannot be translated. This is especially true with traditional poetry, in which the sounds of the language give rise to the musical quality of poetry.” 3

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That is why New Formalism poetry must change the way it is written, in response to the demands of translation. With respect to words, if normal, everyday language is used to make poetry, then poetry becomes absent of rare and archaic words, and the readers do not get stuck with words when they read poetry. As for style, poetry moves closer to prose and utilizes repetition in order to create rhythm, so meter is conserved, and traces of prose are removed to form poetry.” 4

Because, upon translation, the sounds of one language are confused in another language, meaning is lost if translations are word for word. Otherwise, if a verse is translated literally, the result will be a very distasteful verse in the target language. In poetry, musical and rhythmic qualities are pervasive, linking up emotions and ideas. So the translation of poetry is no easy task; this we all know. In order to resolve these matters, we must first change the way we compose before any translation is rendered. For example, alliteration (repetition) techniques in Vietnamese poetry add a new critical dimension to rhythm which upon English translation is preserved. The English reader will be able to read the poem as if it was composed in English and not in another language originally.

Another advantage is that the English reader is able to empathize and relate to a foreign country and culture even though they are reading uniquely different poems. Those who read Vietnamese will recognize, upon encountering the English translation of the poem, the outstanding characteristics of Vietnamese poetry for one simple reason: a bilingual reading is deliberate and otherwise time-consuming, requiring careful and thorough reading of the poem.

An American poetry commentator (critic), Angela Saunders, had the following thoughts about Vietnamese New Formalism poetry when she wrote her introduction for the anthology “Poetry Narrates”.

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“Poetry itself, in any language, is a traditional literary method to pass oral accounts and stories from one generation to another. The rhythm and sounds of a poem provide the means of delivery and way to remember the verse. Sounds that flow in the native tongue of one language are linguistically specific and are not easily translated into another language. A poem set to melodies and tunes in a native tongue lose its aesthetic appeal in translation. Thus a conundrum is created. In an increasingly mobile society, how does one bridge the gaps between linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers while preserving traditional heritage?” 5

And she recognized the following characteristics of Vietnamese New Formalism poetry,

“[As] a patterned number of syllables, enjambments are used at exact syllable counts that remain consistent throughout the poem.

This means that a thought that begins on one line may continue or suddenly stop on the next. Traditionally, enjambments, or stops, will occur to highlight specific words or thoughts. This unnatural stop pattern will often enhance the visual and emotional impact of the poem. Each use of repetition, enjambment, and imagery allow us to truly see the beauty of the thoughts each author is trying to portray. The placement of each word is such that one must consider each meaning implied by positioning, line endings, and strong sensory imagery. For each element paints a desired portrait; each word an integral part of the poem; and each repetition and position shouting out the thoughts of the author and the translator and each poem taking on life of its own.” 6

Once the poem is translated and able to be read as if it was an original composition, the result is that American and Vietnamese poets can read each others’ poems in two languages. 7 As examples, such interesting meeting of the minds happened in “Bilingual Poetry” (a bilingual edition) and “Other Poetry Voices” from Thơ Khác • 92

web site www.thotanhinhthuc.org. In a letter calling for American poets to lend their voices, I wrote,

“Come join us in this small, yet warm corner of poetry. Let us raise a glass and toast each other in this meeting of minds. Dear friends and colleagues, only poetry has the ability to transform us and let us see each other for what we truly are, as equals, and to share suffering as well as happiness in the human condition.” 8

To recap, the past ten years of Vietnamese New Formalism poetry have accomplished notable results. Actually, there are no bad poetic forms, only limits of expressions. For example, in the middle of the 14th century, the Earl of Surrey translated Italian poetry as blank verse in English poetry, but it wasn’t until a half century later that William Shakespeare, and another hundred years later that John Milton, brought Blank Verse poetry to justly deserved prominence.

It is important to recognize the 64 poets who have made these concepts a reality in the bilingual anthology of “Blank Verses”, and the 21 poets who made up the bilingual collection of Poetry Narrates. We believe that, as long as change is a necessity for poets and they are able to communicate with the world beyond their own immediate societies, they will seek readers from other languages and cultures, and so Vietnamese Blank Verse will continue to be an effective and essential vehicle.

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1 & 2/ Khe Iem, New Formalism, Four Quartets, and The Other Essays, Ebook, website www.thotanhinhthuc.org.

3/ Formal Poetry and Related Terms: Formalism, New Formalism, Neo-Formalism, Pseudo-Formalism, Neo-Classicism, Traditional Poetry, and the Multitudinous Variations Thereof by Michael R. Burch.

5/ ”Publisher’s Notes” – Poetry Narrates.

6 & 7/ “Introduction”, Angela Saunders, Translated by Phạm Kiều Tùng into Vietnamese – “Poetry Narrates”.

8/ In only the first two weeks, after the letter was sent out, ten American poets sent their poems to participate in “The Other Poetry Voices”: poets Alden Alden, Bill Duke, Frederick Feirstein, Frederick Turner, Michael Lee Johnson, James Murphy, Rick Stansberger, Stephen John Kalinich, L. K. Thayer và Tom Riordan.

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Nguyễn Hoàng Nam

Three bull-frogs in a swamp look past a window and see a refrigerator full of beer in the house. One of them begins with a croak

“Bợợợt”; and then the next one follows with a “waaaiz”; and then the last one ends with a “zơơơ.” This is not the realm of surreal-ism, where unconcious meets with conscious, giving rise to that strange merveilleux [marvelous, brilliant]. This was a computer-generated commercial graphic. The Budweiser Company must have gotten bored with beautiful women in bikinis holding bottles of beer, so they created this new game for fun. But these commercials were repeated again and again many times on television, to imprint in our minds the beer brand and the subliminal message,

“even frogs love Budweiser beer, so humans should too.” Or, to be more roguish, we can infer that: “If humans don’t love Budweiser beer, then they are worse than frogs.”

That’s commercial. Anything goes with commercials, as long as it increases consumption and isn’t illegal. What about poetry?

First of all, how should a poem go? To raise an issue is to place restrictions, whereas true poetry is not bounded by any limitations.

We must begin with the questions, what is a poem, and what does it mean that anything goes. Then we can properly pose another question: When the poet has complete freedom of form and expression, what should the poet do, and how should he do it? And, by extension, what should a reader do?

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This means that, if you are used to reading Vietnamese poetry in the past (old style), you will meet with difficulties.

With “Television Script”, you might feel that you do not need to read, you do not need to absorb and digest words because there is nothing grandiose about it, no deep thought, no expressing some illusory yet great suffering. Your initial reaction is to associate with the beer commercial which Khế Iêm blatantly stole wholesale and placed in front of your face as if nothing has happened.

Clearly, the poet had overtly taken advantage of the proliferation of the Budweiser beer commercial. You might have felt uncomfortable because the poet appears to be shameless, without concern or deference for any solemn attitude, which the Vietnamese often attribute to a person of letters, in this case, an editor of a literary magazine. You will feel even more uncomfortable upon noticing the fine print beneath, which seems to convey even more than the poem, but it is not a footnote to clarify any meaning; instead, it is a

“suggested use”, as if the poem is a common household item, such as a karaoke machine, an iron, flu medicine, condom, etc.

I am trying to choose my words carefully so as not to offend you.

If you have all of the symptoms which I have just described, then how you read poetry is obsolete, even while that old-style notion has no solid philosophical foundation at all.

Try to think of the things which I have just presented. First of all, poetry is no longer precious ornaments to decorate the mandarins, the learned men, and those who went abroad to France and returned back home. (I’m not sure what these people really learned.) Let’s pose a simple question: If we have been greatly influenced by French poetry from the end of the 19th century, then why is Rimbaud’s shining example not alluded to, and why do we have so many people who have nothing to say yet keep writing on and on? Secondly, the poet is not stupid enough to want to be God. It is futile to self-affirm with a higher purpose or mission in order Thơ Khác • 96

to find salvation for humankind. There are many geniuses who have failed, like Rimbaud has failed and Breton has failed (which raises another question about what was learned from French poetry); for those who have some minor talent, indulging in deceptive arrogance results in a waste of time spent learning and practic-ing. Third, do you really understand what “romantic” is? Many poets whom you admire or worship glibly and without condition cannot readily answer this question. The notion of poetry which you are familiar with has a strange history of development. It started, about 50 years late, with the influence of French poetry at the end of the 19th century, the period of post-Romantic writing beginning with Symbolism, and then somehow transformed into “romantic” in Vietnam. Actually, there is almost nothing Romantic, very little post-Romantic and even less Symbolism, when we compare this notion of poetry with the original movements of these schools. Mostly, it is the exaggeration of unreal suffering, the praising of high-school girls in vague terms, like the little braggarts in sword-hero drama tales and epic movies who refer to themselves as “we”. These things are repeated over and again, and gain meaning because of familiarity. Poetry becomes a con-test of talent with words – anyone could internalize or memorize a Vietnamese modern play; one needs only be a spectator and watch the leading actors and actresses perform. Towards the end of the 1960s, being about 30 years late, this notion of poetry suddenly leapt across the threshold of Surrealism, and there it has remained until now. What’s even stranger is that, during that foggy half century, philosophical debate and criticism had been very poor, almost non-existent.

Therefore, the above issues, and the notions about poetry which accompanied it, are truly difficult to understand. However, the type of poetry which is “Television Script” is easy to understand because it has a clear tradition from the start.

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First, there is the story about Tristan Tzara mixing up words in a bag and then blindly drawing them out to form a poem. We can easily confuse a poem with a simple game, when, in actuality, the meaning of a poem lies in how the poet had created the poem. The poem’s only role is to stimulate the reader to seek knowledge of how the poem was created. Tzara mixed up words to make the statement that everything in life is dependent upon chance, that God is dead, that a child’s game is more interesting than human experience, which is dry and stagnant, etc. Certainly, you have heard of these miscellaneous things somewhere already. But what we need to grasp is that how the poem is created is part of the poem, and how the poem was made might be the most creative aspect of the poet’s work.

Next, there is the story about Marcel Duchamp submitting a toilet for exhibition. Modern artistic expression emphasizes that art is not just in museums or on “perfumed” pages, but that we can discover many interesting things in normal everyday things all around us – beauty is something which each of us can choose for ourselves. Creativity is nothing grandiose; anyone can embark on it because, besides the search for happiness of each individual spirit, the search for meaning is subjective in a meaningless world.

Thus, has it become too easy to gain fame? Not necessarily. On the one hand, Tzara is the first person to mix up words, just like Duchamp is the first person who submitted a toilet for display in an exhibition. For example, if I were to mix up words, that would be redundant; that is, I cannot speak to anything more. However, if I like to mix up one thing, I can mix up other things. On the other hand, the lesson for us here is not necessarily that we have to do shocking things in order to gain fame, but that the spirit of human beings pays attention to observe life around us and to practice looking at things differently, more strangely, more interestingly.

That, in fact, is the poet in all of us.

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That is basically the tradition that your notion of poetry recklessly ignored and leapt over to stand peeking into the window of Surrealism, as I have mentioned in the above paragraph. But, if that is the case, then what does “Television Script” wish to speak to? Or should we repeat the words of the Dadaists?

Don’t be impatient. First, Tzara’s poems from 1916, Duchamp’s toilet from 1919, and Khế Iêm’s poems from 1996, are considered part of post-modernism, so, obviously, more must be said. The application of artistic notions in modern times is still limited to the subjectivism (and arrogance-narcissism) of the superpowers:

“international” in fact refers to Russia, America and Europe. In the social realm, it is even more contracted. Take Dadaism for example: The discoveries of this movement are really a reaction by Western progressive intellectualism in response to the stubborn-ness of the petty bourgeoisie (middle class) of the period, of which the Impressionists are representative – all of which are the doings of white men. (For example: Duchamp exhibiting a toilet is understood, but, when our own TTKh * entered a catfish bridge for exhibition, it was not understood. What is acclaimed as “the common human experience” is in fact the perspectives of white men.) Criticized roundly in post-modernity, this kind of singular venera-tion has faded in recent years, giving way to a common notion of respecting multiple cultural and gender voices – internationalism has truly become international. The voices and experiences of the third world, of ethnic minorities in the West, of women, of homo-sexual men, have gained recognition on the international literary stage.

And so, although we utilize forms and philosophies which are traditionally Western, our own unique cultural and spiritual imprint can be expressed. Because we are telling our own stories, our own experiences, we